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HANDSHAKES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

We deal with a handful of manufacturers - one for cards, one for wood bits, Blue Panther for everything else - and as you might expect, these manufacturers send us bills. We pay them promptly and in full, just as we pride ourselves on paying our artists and our designer royalties promptly and in full. Before we do though, we check over the bills to make sure everything is as it should be, because even with excel formulas doing the heavy-lifting, we're all still human beings and we sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes the manufacturer over-charges us, and when we bring it to their attention, they revise the invoice accordingly.

And sometimes they under-charge us. Recently we had a manufacturer who under-charged us by over a thousand dollars. That might be peanuts for large publishers pulling out that sweet kickstarter cash, but for us, that's an awful lot of money, especially with the quarterly installment of our estimated self-employment taxes heading out the door. But that didn't change how we approached it: we told the manufacturer that they had under-charged us and asked them to revise it. They thanked us for catching the error, and said that this is one of the reasons why they liked working in the board game industry: it's full of honest people.

Now, we're not sharing this story to toot our own horn, because from our point of view, there's nothing to toot about; there's nothing extraordinary or exemplary about paying someone what you owe them. And I think our manufacturer was correct; on the whole, the world of board games is full of honest people. 

Mostly. There are certainly stories of bad behavior. There is the publisher who retroactively cut the designer's royalty to half what they had agreed upon, and complained when the designer refused to go along with it. There is the publisher who changed the name of a classic board game they were reprinting by one letter so that they didn't have to pay the original designer for their work. There's the publisher who ran a kickstarter to unofficially "distribute" a game put out by another firm. And we've probably all heard about the customer who was "confused" about a sale to clear out old games and used it to get multiple copies of an expensive new monster wargame, and then sold those copies at a profit (undercutting the publisher's own sales price significantly) while crowing loudly and publicly about how he got one over the designer-publisher. That guy now has his own publishing firm apparently, but you won't see me buying any of their games, and I know that there are other designers and customers who feel the same way. 

Designers and publishers are a chatty bunch, and word quickly gets around, privately if not publicly. Everything in this business is reputation: your reputation as a publisher, as a designer, as a human being. It's insane to risk that reputation by taking advantage of someone, and so most people don't do it. At least, not intentionally. And there's the rub. 

Let's say you're a brand-new designer, eager to get your first game out there. You find a publisher who wants to publish your game. Hurrah! They're going to write you a check (or, more likely, send you money via paypal) for a couple hundred bucks. It's not much; in fact, it's almost nothing. But you're not in this for the money. Or maybe you are, but hey, you need to get your foot in the door somehow. You don't have a contract; you have a handshake deal, only you've probably never met the guy, so there's no actual handshake. But that's okay! You're a published game designer. The game comes out and it does alright, and maybe you've gotten some more out into the world as time goes on. 

Years later, there's a new edition of your game coming out from the publisher. Sounds great! When do you get your check for the new edition? Well, you don't, because as the publisher explains, they bought the rights to the game in perpetuity. You didn't sign anything that said that because, again, there was no contract. If you were going to sign away your rights, you probably would have asked for a lot more than a couple hundred bucks. Or, at the very least, you should have.

Now, I wouldn't necessarily assume the hypothetical publisher in this case was trying to pull a fast one. They just assumed the designer knew that they were buying the thing outright for a mess of pottage. And this is precisely why designers need to look after their own interests and insist on a contract. That contract needs to spell out how much they're paid and how often. It needs to address the issue of the rights to the game and how and when those rights revert back to the designer. Mary and I have worked mostly with and as small-volume print-on-demand publishers, and in that space it's especially important that the rights revert after a certain number of calendar months or years, and that reversion is not tied to the number of copies the publisher has left in their inventory. Because after all the publisher can keep printing more of them, never letting it fall below that threshold, in which case, you'll never get your rights back.

All this is assuming that you're not selling the rights to your intellectual property outright.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually sold the rights to my designs, and all of those were to one firm - Winsome Games. That's how John Bohrer operates, and he was clear with me about that right from the start. I felt that what I got in return - the great development, the built-in audience, and the chance for the games to be licensed to larger firms with John and I splitting the royalties - was worth it. With Rio Grande's edition of Northern Pacific coming out soon-ish, I would say that I absolutely made the right decision.

Every other game, however, I've retained the rights, and am paid royalties on either a monthly or quarterly basis during the licensing period. If I was still a freelance designer, courting publishers, might there be a case where I'd give those rights up? I think it's unlikely, but it would depend on how I was being compensated.

I hear a lot of designers telling new designers not to worry about money for their first game, "you just want to get something out there", or that "nobody makes money in wargames, and if you're asking about money, you're in it for the wrong reasons". Don't listen to them. You're the only one who can look after your interests. Ask questions. Protect yourself. 

Again, the publisher probably isn't trying to screw you over. They want to treat you fairly, but they probably have a very different idea of what that is. The whole point of the contract is to make sure that you're on the same page, so that there are no surprises - for either party - down the road.


8 comments

  • Very true, Roger.

    Tom Russell

  • Contracts are fine for clarity of what everyone expects but they are often difficult to enforce. Just having one is pretty meaningless if the people on the other end are not going to honor it. I would rather do a deal on handshake with someone I know and trust then a deal with a contract with someone who I do not know. Now I need to get back to my three way contract between a company in Japan , one in China, and myself that is written in English which is the native language of only one of the parties. No chance this can go wrong. ;-)

    Roger Miller

  • While games are a hobby and passion for many people, they’re also still a business. Designers and publishers share a symbiotic relationship and it’s in both of their interests to have everything in writing.

    As for anyone telling a budding designer that they are in it for the wrong reasons if they’re not looking to make some scratch for their efforts, the designer should ask back if that publisher is giving the games away for free?

    While criticisms of games are a dime a dozen (like with we reviewers) and tend to be the things that stick most often in creators minds, definitely know that we greatly appreciate the effort of the designers, developers and publishers for bringing us these boxes of joy.

    Another fantastic article Tom, thanks for sharing your thoughts and keep up the great work everyone!!

    Maurice Fitzgerald

  • Absolutely right, guys, and thanks for the comments.

    And Jeroen – absolutely! I couldn’t quite work it in but I’ve also heard stories of publishers who found themselves getting a raw deal with a designer who wasn’t acting in good faith.

    Tom Russell

  • And to be fair, for the same reasons a publisher should also insist on a contract.

    Jeroen


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